Friday, 22 September 2017

Safekeeping beauty

Stories of little boys
pinching butterflies
and sticking them in a scrapbook
seemed revolting.

The idea of fix-depositing beauty,
continues to entice.

Sunshine tendrils float in front 
but stay with you only as long as the eyes can follow them
without blinking.

The option of putting them in a safe-box for leisurely perusal
would have been desirable
As much for soothing the self 
as for sharing with anyone who 
needed it.

First published in Anapest/The Paragon Journal, 2 Sep 2017.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

हुज़ूर को, हुजूम से

हम जो ठहरे नौकर से
बन जाते हैं फन्ने खाँ
जब जाती है आपकी जाँ
हमारे बोलने भर से
हम थे खानाबदोश
आया हमको होश
जब हमारी भटकन
से तंग हुई आपकी अचकन
हमने महबूब समझ आपसे शिकायत की
आपने सोच लिया हमने हिमाकत की
दीवारें तो बाहर भी आपने खूब बनाईं
आपकी जेलों में क्या अलहदा होगी रुसवाई?
आप कहते हैं आप हम सबके हैं,
पर आपके आशिकों में कई तबके हैं,
आप रीझे जाते हैं उन पर जिनकी बोली है आप सी
खटकते आँखों में हम खैरख्वा लिए हाथों में आरसी
मुँह पे ताले लगा तो साथ चलती है परछाई भी
कई बार बना देती पर आदमी को उससे कुछ ज़्यादा ही बड़ा
शिकवों से तो रंज न करती खुदाई भी
जानती है जो उठाता सवाल उसी ने किया उसको भी खड़ा
पत्थर उठाने से पहले जान लो ये भी, जानम
हम ना होंगे तो होगी कुछ ऐसी सी सूरत
शाम में साया भी तोड़ देगा अपना आख़िरी दम
टूटे अक्स से हर ओर होगी मनहूसियत.

First published in Shunyakal, 2017.

Ways of Seeing

When we went out on V-Day
We didn't know we were going to be an item
For a newspaper headline
"The blind too celebrate Valentine's Day".

So love can be blind
And lovers?
Ah, never mind.

First published in Rupture Magazine, Aug 2017.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Tibetans in Delhi: Of Living in Exile and Finding Second Homes

The people of Tibet first started coming to India around 1960, after the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese rule in 1959. Soon after they arrived, the government of India allotted the area of Majnu Ka Tila, in north Delhi, to them. The place has since become an attractive tourist spot and a regular adda for students of Delhi University close by. Along with cafes, shops, a Tibetan school and a monastery, it also has a clinic called Men Tsee Khang, where patients go to get Tibetan medicines, a huge number of Indians among them. Incense smoke wafts through the air as one crosses the busy courtyard of the monastery and passes by walls mapping Dalai Lama’s travels through newspaper clippings.

A cafe in Majnu Ka Tila

In 1964, the Tibetan Welfare Office was set up in Delhi to address the needs and concerns of the Tibetans living in India. When I go to this office in Majnu Ka Tila to know more, a perplexed Lekyi Dorjee Tsangla, the welfare officer, looks up from his files and tries his best to answer my questions: “You can ask me in Hindi. My English is not so good and I can only manage broken Hindi.” Tsangla is not from Delhi and looks back with wistfulness at his previous appointment in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a place he knew much better than Delhi, where he got appointed in 2009. In his official capacity, he acts as the link between the Tibetans in Delhi and the Tibetan government in exile. “If a big religious ceremony is to be held, I receive instructions from the government about how it should be organised and pass them on to the people. After it is concluded, I have to prepare a report and send it back to the government.”

It is from this office that educational scholarships to Tibetans are given out, both government and non-government. “If someone wants to put up a shop and an agreement has to be made about space, they come to me. If a family is trying to get their child admitted in a school and don’t know how to go about it, they approach the welfare office. We also certify nurses so they can get jobs in private medical institutions, as without citizenship they can’t work in government organisations.”

The issue of citizenship of course is one which keeps cropping up because a citizen identification card becomes a mandatory document to avail of many services in town. Tsangla talks of how the Election Commission keeps saying Tibetans would get citizenship soon while the Ministry of Home Affairs maintains that no such rule has been framed yet. “There was a 2014 circular saying they would get regulation. Some people who arrived in 1962 have ration cards while most others do not, though electricity and water supply has been there.” So far, says Tsangla, there has not been a tussle over resources with neighbours either.

For Tibetans to be identified to their own government, there is something called a green card which serves as proof of identification. A charge of Rs 60 has to be paid for it per year and if a Tibetan national does not have a green card, they apply for one at the welfare office.

Children also get scholarship from nursery to class 12 to study in the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school but expenses overall have been on the rise. “After passing out, if they do not get seats in colleges, they directly get into jobs like call centres or hotels,” adds the welfare officer.

Tibetan Children's Village School

There are a lot of small businesses run by Tibetans in Majnu Ka Tila. They also get loans up to a lakh from the Tibetan government to start their venture. The interest rate is one per cent and the loan has to be repaid in three months.

But running cafes and selling woollens are not all that Tibetans in Delhi do. Tashi Tsering came to Delhi from Dharmshala. When asked if he faced any discrimination in Delhi, he responds in the negative. “A lot depends on the individual. For example, if you get into a taxi and start talking to the driver, he will do the same. And if you sit quietly and give him tough looks, he will act in a similar manner. Our cultures are different and in the beginning misunderstanding might be there when people look at each other curiously. You should take this in a positive light.” He admits that at times people are deliberately insulting. Once when he was in Noida with a group of friends, a guy tried to bully him. Tashi and his friends did not react and then another guy, the first one’s friend, came and apologized on his behalf. 

Compared to other places, Tashi finds people in Delhi relatively more open-minded. “We had gone to Uttarakhand for a trip and some local people came and started asking us questions about who we were, where we have come from. They kept following us.”

But while looking for work in the field of web development or digital marketing, Tashi did not have to face any hassles because of his origin. “You have to be good at your work so nobody can point a finger at you.” Sometimes, even working with Tibetans could have challenges. Tashi gets projects from monasteries in India and some of the senior monks he has to deal with are often not flexible with their requirements, not being well versed with technology and its limitations themselves.

Tashi’s aim is to ultimately have his own start-up, a gaming company that targets mobile users, for which he finds India fertile ground. If it doesn’t work here, Tibet and the US would be his other options. “India is a free country and you can have your own business. And I don’t need to earn billions. Just enough to survive decently and time for family and friends.”

What makes for challenging logistics is the lack of documentation when one tries to set up a business or get into jobs. Tashi feels that where he lives right now, in East of Kailash, the requirements, say for taking a house on rent, are more relaxed than in a place like Laxmi Nagar. That is probably one reason why the colony houses a number of Tibetans.

There is an important difference to note between the two kinds of Tibetans currently living in India. The birthplace of some is Tibet while others were born in India. The latter find it easier to make cultural adjustments in their country of birth. But the Tibetan government takes care to ensure that all Tibetans stay connected to their culture. Children in Delhi are sent to a school called Tibetan Children’s Village where they learn the Tibetan language. The people I interviewed proudly recalled how Dalai Lama refused Nehru’s offer of sending these children to English medium schools in India but instead established TCV. In 1961 the Indian government established the Central Tibetan Schools Administration (CTSA), which has 28 schools, both day and boarding, under it in different places in India.

Tashi believes that while these platforms educate people in the Tibetan language, they miss out on learning other languages as fluently. Once he has set apart enough savings for the investment, Tashi plans to build translation tools for Tibetans. “People like Steve Jobs can never be my role model. What is the good of earning so much money for yourself? Once you have enough, it is more important to give back to society.” He also finds it limiting that for Tibetans direct political participation is often seen as the only way of contributing to their country. “Two years ago I started a social networking site which also became political, though I didn’t want it to be. Why does everything have to be like that? Or maybe I am selfish. I do understand that my family in Tibet may have to face pressures I am free of in Delhi. Still one cannot say that protesting is the only way to work for our people.”

He also admits that living away from home opens up new vistas. “You can try anything. You face problems on your own, become mature. You can take your own risks free from your family’s anxieties and expectations.” After coming to Delhi, Tashi did not do much for a year, then realised he needs to do something to stay financially independent, became a web developer, started taking freelance work. He also opened a cafe with a partner and later sold it when his other work became too demanding. “Sometimes I see other families and miss mine. I do have relatives in Nepal but don’t go there much as I have become too used to my own freedom. I tell myself that even if I am away from home at least I am not not wasting going to parties every day. I am trying to do something good for myself.”

He has a strong network of Tibetan friends around. “We regularly call each other, meet and hang out together during Tibetan festivals.” When in college, he first got to see Indian students his age at close quarters. “We were two Tibetans in class and most of the students there, in Punjab Technical University, were Punajbi. Punjabi guys are serious. They reply when you talk; they don’t initiate conversations. I observed that he had a group earlier but later we would mostly see him alone. When we asked him, he said the others had stopped hanging out with him because he had scored well in the exams. We tried to befriend him but he seemed tense and overburdened by his family’s expectations.”

Tashi remembers a student in class who would look down on others and pretend to know it all even when he didn’t, a quality he says he later observed in a lot of Indians. I become conscious of my own continuous nodding throughout the conversation and make it a point to stop and ask Tashi for more clarity later in the conversation on things that are new to me. “If I don’t know something, I’ll come out and say it. On the other hand, this one student who would always laugh at me had actually failed. It was only when I pointed it out in class did he stop being contemptuous.” Talking of cultural differences with Indians, he gives the example of marriage: “In our society, it is not a big deal if a rich person marries someone poor. We don't have restrictions imposed by our families. As for religions, I feel we should pick the best parts of all religions and practise those.”

Tashi feels impatient with some Tibetans of the older generation, because he has faced ageism from them. “I used to work in CTSA and nobody would listen to me over there. You have to have grey hair in order to be taken seriously in Tibetan society.” While working in Dharmashala with the education department in 2014-15, he was offered a permanent position but he refused because he felt he would not get enough exposure there.

Learning new things is something that most excites Tashi. “I would get the fourth or the fifth rank in school but I was quite good in sports, painting and computers. After graduation, I was going to pursue fine arts and become a cartoonist.” But he eventually got interested in web development and self-taught himself a lot of the relevant things even before he went for a professional course. “I recently met an old man in Nepal who was a musician and had just started a soya sauce making ‘factory’ in his small room and was selling the products himself on the streets to earn money. No skill goes waste.”

In Jawaharlal Nehru University, another Tibetan is brushing up on a skill. Tsering Tharchin is studying the Chinese language. He feels that in the days to come Tibetans would need more and more resource people who understand Chinese, especially with regard to political matters. Tharchin has been in Delhi, where he came from Himachal Pradesh, for seven years. Having been in India since 2002, he doesn’t find it difficult to adjust here, though he is still learning to cope with Indian spices. In Delhi, he found the opportunities that he says aren’t available at other places in India. “I have’t experienced discrimination here. Sure, at times there would be racist comments but the people who would pass those would be in a small percentage. Delhi is a liberal place and it feels like home.”

Amongst Indians aware about the political context of Tibet’s struggle, it is easy to see every Tibetan through those lenses. An Indian friend with contacts in the Tibetan community told me many of them do not want to speak to the media as they are tired of always being seen as refugees. Sonam Dolkar, now 25, came to Delhi when she was 18, and is pursuing her MPhil in Japanese Studies in JNU. She says that she does not mind if people see her in the light of Tibetan’s liberation struggle, “Even if I can educate one person about our struggle, that’s one way I can contribute to the cause.”

Protest posters on a Majnu Ka Tila wall

Culturally, she finds Indians more outgoing and also outspoken. “Studying and living in Delhi was one of the best decisions for me.” As far as the city of Delhi is concerned, she would like to work here after her academic life is complete, “although there were times when Delhi was not so safe for women and people like us . . . because of the fact that we look like Chinese. I constantly experience people calling us different names and gawking at us. But the positive thing about Delhi has been learning to use our freedom. In the Tibetan school, we were constantly under the eyes of a teacher, school captains and warden. Living in Delhi and having the freedom from all these pressures has been, in one way, very liberating.”

If not the only, or the permanent home, the city has definitely become a second or a current home for a lot of Tibetans, not all of them young students. Tenzin Passang came to Delhi after his education in Mussourie and set up his shop in the Monastery Market in Buddhist Vihar, near ISBT. “I am grateful to the government of India for this place, for the amenities of water and electricity. If I have got the chance to do business here, I too make it a point not to dupe customers. Even students are happy with the reasonable rates at my shop.” Has he ever had to face any racism here? “Maybe one in hundred persons is like that. And if that person says something, other Indians explain to him, tell him about us, where we have come from and why.”

Sonam Wangyl is in the Indian army and helps his wife manage their shop when he comes to Delhi during his period of leave. I ask him about some of the clothes at the shop and he gives an embarrassed smile, saying it’s really his wife who knows the shop best but is unwell and thus away from the shop. He is happy with his job and satisfied with the running of the shop, “Business is good; the environment is favourable for doing business.”

The president of the market association, Sonam Dorjee, explains that since the ministry of urban development exclusively allotted the place to Tibetans, even shops run by Indians are owned by Tibetans. At the time of the interview, Dorjee was extremely busy because around Buddh Purnima a lot of religious ceremonies take place around the monasteries, which the market association has to arrange for. On the question of whether the market people have tiffs with the Indians around, he says, “Sometimes, but we try to ignore these things. While some local people might discriminate against us, most are not bad. If there is any trouble with customers, we go and pacify things. With time, things are becoming smoother. We advise our people that the customer is god in Indian culture and that they should be dealt with carefully.” He feels Tibetans are well looked after by the Indian government.

The Tibetans who came to Delhi might be satisfied with their day to day experience in Delhi but those who have lived in the south of India find it an easier place to be. Tashi, living in the Tibetan youth hostel in Rohini, which houses around 300 students, finds the south more welcoming. At the same time, he also remembers protests in Arunachal Pradesh, which had asked Tibetans to leave.

Entrance to the youth hostel in Rohini

Tashi had left Tibet at the age of three, after his parents passed away, with other Tibetans. Living in Delhi, he tries to ignore differential behaviour towards them as much as possible. “Sometimes we are overcharged by shops. We know this yet we agree as we Tibetans are often lenient with our money.”

At times he is left flustered. “We have small eyes and that’s why we are called chinkis. Fine. But at least they shouldn’t call us Chinese. Many people think Tibet is an Indian state in the north-east.” On occasions when the harassment turned more aggressive, Tashi and his friends did not find the police very helpful. “Indian guys on bikes have targeted women around here. They snatch phones or abuse them verbally. We have had a few fights. We try to be around women when they step out in the evenings so we can protect them.” Yet he feels that those from the north-east have suffered more attacks. “And then those from the north-east have also wanted us to leave Majnu Ka Tila, because they want to run the market. But that is so unfair because we built the entire place. It was bare when we got it.”

Apart from the schools, Tashi mentions the Tibet House in Delhi, which promotes Tibetan culture beyond the Tibetan community as well, and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharmshala as another place where Tibetan art and culture are kept alive. Graduates of the school can then teach others. “After graduation, all of us have to find our next stop. I am thinking of JNU or the Jindal School.”

Scholarships from the Tibetan government are from those scoring 60 per cent and above. If someone gets marks above 80 per cent, another 7,000 is added. “Financial aid is there but limited and you are not left with much for additional expenses after paying for food and transportation. But we all try to help each other. There are Tibetan people with money who sponsor students.” Tashi also works to support himself, helping organise tours when he has time to spare.

In the same hostel lives Phurbu Tsetan, a second year student of English literature in Ramjas College, Delhi University. Her birthplace is Kollegal in Karnataka. Right after she passed out of the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Dehradun and started preparing to come to Delhi, she heard news of racial attacks on people from the north-east. “Since we look alike I was afraid. My senior reassured me that while the news is correct the media also exaggerates.” Soon she was explaining to locals that she was not from the north-east, and where Tibet is. “In the beginning I didn’t get this hostel as I am not from one of the Tibetan schools. When I was looking for a house, I was asked for huge security deposits that other Indians did not have to pay.” Like for most other women, traveling in Delhi is not stress free for Phurbu, though she felt less afraid in Dehradun and even more comfortable in Karnataka. For vacations, she prefers to go to places around Bangalore. She says India is an evolving country and she understands that sometimes misunderstandings and discrimination can happen. “But one student had some really bad experiences here. She was filling someone's survey and wrote that Indians are fake. I was shocked as I found it rude. She then agreed to write that Indians are mostly nice but rude at times. Actually because of what Tibetans have faced they're close knit. So probably college friendships where you just hang out and go back home seemed fake to her.”

Phurbu herself has friends from different places. “One is from Arunachal and we definitely share more solidarity.” Phurbu, like many Tibetans, closely follows the teachings of Dalai Lama. “His Holiness says our culture is all we have right now. So we have to be attentive to it. We observe each festival with equal fervour. On our national day, I wear our traditional dress.” The most anticipated occasion is Losar, the Tibetan new year. Dalai Lama’s birthday and the day he received the Nobel Prize are important.

Talking more about her culture, Phurbu says, “Tibetan parents take a lot of risks. They send kids to boarding schools at a young age. They believe they will get prepared to face the world. When I was in the sixth grade I travelled to Bangalore alone. There is no pressure on us related to marriage. Though my mother was too lazy to be romantic, I can choose my partner. I would surely like to but I am not sure if my mother would agree to my being with someone from another nationality. When I went to a Christian school, she was really scared and made doubly sure that I knew my own religion closely.” In Dehradun, Phurbu shares, there are hostels run by NGOs especially for children from Nepal, Tibet and India, funded by people in the UK.

She does not shy away from direct political participation though she says she stays away from college elections because of the fights and vandalism involved. She participates in protests for Tibet though as a Dalai Lama follower, she sticks to the stand of demanding autonomy for her country, rather than a complete break from China. Another youth, Tsering Wangmo, a Delhi University graduate, speaks similarly, “I go for gatherings that do not trigger anger against the Chinese because that can antagonise them further and harm the Tibetans living with them. I prefer peace marches.”

Phurbu happily recalls, “On 10 March, the Tibetan Uprising Day, we went around with banners to the university and to Madhuban Chowk and spoke to people, informed them about our struggle. They gave us our full support. Indians have suffered under the British rule; they can empathise with us.”


When seen together with the experiences of Africans living in Delhi and a spate of attacks on them, the accounts of Tibetans tell of relatively smoother adjustment stories. They might not be targeted because of their colour, but they are still easily segregated based on their looks. Lack of knowledge about Tibet-from its geographical location to its political status-are still common challenges they have to face. But at least till the Tibet-China tensions are resolved, the Tibteans in Delhi seem to have accepted it as their home for a brief period in time and made their peace with it.

First published in The Equator Line, Jul-Sep, 2017.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Doctoring Evil: The Making and Hunting of Witches in Assam

In 2016, India celebrated the Olympic medals brought home by PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. But women who make unconventional choices like becoming sportspersons do not always get rewarded. Assam's Debjani Bora, who has won gold at the national level for her javelin throws, was targeted as a witch in 2014 in the state and assaulted, of all the places, in a community prayer hall. Debjani's case puts into question one of the biggest myths around witch-hunting, that it takes place only due to superstition, ignorance and lack of education in far-flung remote villages, and among poor, uneducated people. Superstition might be one of the causes of branding women as witches and the subsequent attacks on them, but talking to one survivor after another, or the families of those who succumbed, brings to light many incidents that have been perpetrated with clear motivation and deliberate planning.

While not the only one, Assam is one state where witch-hunting cases have been taking place for years; it is also the state in the northeast with the lowest gender development index. Witch-hunting in Assam is supposedly more common among the Rabha, Hajong, Mishing, Bodo and other tribal groups. Women are not the only targets but it is worth noting, as shared by Chitralekha Barua of North East Network (NEN), a women's rights group based in Guwahati, that when men are targeted, their wives also get embroiled by association. On the other hand, if a woman is supposed to be practising witchcraft, it is considered possible that she may be doing so without the knowledge of her family. That is why at times the spouses or families of such women, in trying to protect themselves, dissociate themselves from the woman who is then left to fend for herself. A report by the organisation Partners in Law and Development (PLD), taking into account data from different states, says that 86 per cent of the primary targets of witch-hunting are women, and of these most fall in the age group of 40-60 years. So not just those women who are typically seen as vulnerable, such as single women and widows, but also the ones 'secure' in their marital families face the threat of witch-hunting. In a study focusing on witch-hunting in Assam, PLD also discovered that in 12 out of the 16 cases they were examining the victims had had no formal education.

The Making of a Witch

Women have been the face of evil in fairy tales and folklores for centuries, like Tejimola's evil stepmother in one of Assam's folktales. There are male ghosts too but in literature or motion pictures, the fear invoked by the woman with supernatural powers remains unmatched. Power in men is supposed to be a part of their natural being. There is a matter-of-factness about it. But women are inherently supposed to be defenceless and fragile. For them to have strong powers is an aberration. At times they are allowed to be wonder women, in ways that retain their attractiveness under the male gaze. But more frequently media and mythology suggest that they tend to get consumed by their own prowess more often than men. It is Eve who has to bite into the apple for all hell to break loose.

There are many ways in which this mystery, and then mistrust, around women's capabilities gets built. In villages or cities, when there are programmes to raise awareness around reproductive issues men would keep out of it or would be asked to stay out. What happens is that instead of understanding there is fear or contempt for the reproductive capabilities of women's bodies. One woman was targeted as a witch because during her menstruation she noticed some other emissions and when she went to a doctor about it, it became a matter of public knowledge and, soon, fear.

Then there is this hostility towards the hungry woman. She is the antonym to the woman who starves and fasts for others in the family and never says she is hungry even if she is malnourished. A woman who acknowledges this hunger and wants it satiated becomes a witch who feeds on the flesh and blood of others to strengthen herself. Anita Rabha, 58, lives in Baida village in Lakhipur block of Goalpara district. Years ago, a boy in her area suffered a dog bite. His father consulted a kobiraj, who acted like a traditional doctor for villagers. The kobiraj said that he would not be able to cure the boy. When the boy died, another kobiraj said that he had been eaten by a witch and pointed to Anita's house. It seems too much of a coincidence that this second kobiraj was related to Anita and her spouse, and had been in dispute with them over a piece of land. At this juncture, Anita received the support of her maternal family, who brought the couple to their home after they got driven out of their own house, but Birbal Rabha, her spouse, decided to separate from her. She now works at the local thana, the police station, washing utensils and clothes. She talks of how her younger son is finding it tough to pass the matriculation exam. Once he does, she says, he could get a driving licence and a job as a driver. Anita's daughter, 22, is in her third year of college and had also been going to computer classes but is not studying at present because of a problem with her hand. One doctor has diagnosed her with arthritis. Wrenched away from her home and village and fending for herself and her children, Anita worries as her own age diminishes her capabilities. When she does get some time, she tries to attend meetings of AMSS, the Assam Mahila Samata Samiti, which has been staunchly fighting the practice of witch-hunting.

Anita Rabha, driven out of her village on suspicion of witchcraft

Identifying and Targeting ‘Witches’

I meet AMSS members in Goalpara, where they work in five blocks. Goalpara also receives funds from the government because it is listed as a backward district. A number of women from neighbouring villages have been well trained as active members of the Samiti, which now has a strong network, and so the coordinator has to intervene only in extreme cases. AMSS has a long list of witch-hunting cases they intervened in. In 2012, Dukhumoli Daimari, a widow with children, was finally able to get her house built. Her son had also become independent and had been doing well. This prosperity of an unfortunate woman became unpalatable for some relatives in the family who consulted an ojha, a kind of an astrologer-doctor-priest, who declared Dukhumoli a witch.

An ojha performing a ritual in her temple

Ojhas are important because they supposedly put the final stamp of identification on the witches to be targeted. The ojha I met, however, an old woman living in as much poverty as her next door neighbour in the village, did not come across as such an all-powerful figure. Surrounded by several of her grandchildren in her dimly lit hut, she showed me the small temple of mud where she had established the idol of a goddess. She plaintively remarked that ojhas are maligned for naming witches, while all they do is give a vague description of the person and the area to people who have already decided who they wish to target.

AMSS's intervention process involved a big meeting with all the villagers who had turned against Dukhumoli. Yet for about a year she had to live in a separate house outside the village, protected by the police and supported by groups like the Rabha Students Organisation and the Bodo Mahila Samiti. Finally an agreement was signed with the villagers where they said they would not trouble Dukhumoli again after she returned home and she, in turn, would not take any action against them.

AMSS fights witch hunting through direct intervention and awareness programmes

Ruma Kalita, AMSS, says, I cannot think of a case where a woman went to the police directly. We intervene in a case if we get to know of it from our members or a woman could come to us if she knows of the group. Acceptance of the ostracised person finally happens by the village, though it does take time.’ This reconciliation often comes on the condition that no action would be taken against the villagers who had earlier assaulted the so-called witch. Something similar happened with Onila Basumatary.

Onila offers a guesstimate of 45-50 years upon being asked about her age. She had come to Assam from Noakhali after her marriage. Onila, along with two of her friends, had lent money to a person belonging to the Santhal tribe. Santhalis in Assam are often viewed with suspicion and distrust and considered outsiders. Because of their interactions with the person, all three women were suspected of being involved in witchcraft and were brutally attacked with lathis by about eighty people. Onila was later called the luckier one because another friend of hers, already weak due to an illness she was going through, succumbed to her injuries.

Onila still continues to take medicines for the joint pains that had started after she was beaten up. A month after the attack she was not even able to move from her bed. All of this happened within a day in the Brahmo temple in the village and she never got a chance to refute the allegations foisted upon her. She did not file a police case because later people of the village gave her a thousand rupees for her treatment. She smiles sadly on being asked if that much money was enough. Someone from the village came with me when I was going to the doctor. I had to pay for his food and conveyance, along with mine. For a week every day I had to go to the doctor and still have to continue those visits to the civil hospital in Udalguri. I feel like I have been ill for ever. I don't feel like a healthy person any more.’

Around 80 people attacked Onila Basumatary with lathis, after having branded her a witch

Onila does not have any land herself and works as a daily wage labourer. Her daughter-in-law weaves clothes but the output is just about enough for their own domestic consumption. Does she feel angry with the villagers about the injustice meted out to her, I am not upset. What is the use? You have to live with these people. Now they talk to me like nothing had happened.’

The Prejudice of the Educated

It is believed that lack of education is the cause of witch-hunting in villages. But are the educated free of prejudice? The headmaster of Baida Junior College, Listiram Rabha, is also the honorary founder principal there. When asked about the practice of witch-hunting he says, When a dakini, the witch, commits malpractices, she gets beaten up by the public. I would say they should not be killed. They should get a chance to rectify themselves.’ He recalls having acted as a mediator in many cases and saved the practitioners of witchcraft from the public, and the public from the law.

He continues to talk about the practice of dark rituals,There is an oppodevata, a god with a supernatural, malevolent force that some people tame. If this force is sent to harm someone, the person would fall so ill that no doctor would be able to cure him. The patient would then have to offer some sacrifice. Content with this offering, the force will then help the practitioner again in the future when they summon the god. I saw on television that in a lady's house in Guwahati, curtains get set on fire. Such things are the work of the gods that I speak of. To tame such gods is a big art and Rabhas are experts in this.’
While he condemns the violent methods of witch-hunting, he speaks of the importance of education not in reforming the hunters but in transforming those he calls the practitioners, Education is increasing. Tantric practices around here have gone down by about 60 per cent. People are going out to study but there aren't as many women doing this. They should.’

Working with Witch Hunters, Against Witch-Hunting

The mention of DGP Kula Saikia and his Project Prahari keeps coming up as an example of a campaign against witch-hunting. When I meet him at his office, it is easy to notice his pride in the campaign he had initiated, as in the Fulbright scholarship he had received for education in the US where he had studied models of community development. He fondly speaks of how this helped him connect better with people, Recently a village woman called me up and said, For us, you are our God . . . these things are not common in the life of a police officer.’

Saikia talks about how witch-hunting is not a new phenomenon and traces its history in European countries. In 2001, I was DIG, Kokrajhar. It is situated in lower Assam, which has a lot of tribal areas.’ When he read cases of how several people were murdered as part of witch-hunting, he felt it would need something more than traditional policing. I learnt that before the crime the people of the village had held a meeting. I had to see it as a societal crime.’ Saikia found it a pity that community strength was being used in the wrong direction and wondered if it could be mobilised for a more constructive purpose.

When he questioned the villagers about the murders, they said they had been having several issues like crop failures and illnesses. So when the priest told them of the witch responsible for their misfortunes, they decided to eliminate her. Saikia talks of how earlier people were afraid of the police but his project started a dialogue with the people and people began inviting Saikia to their villages voluntarily.

He decided that the villages need development, in the absence of which, people had started attacking their vulnerable fellow villagers due to frustration about their own conditions. He started creating what he calls a change agent-led growth model, roping in women's groups, students' groups, science clubs and doctors. The villagers resolved to take up productive activities like weaving. Project Prahari brought in designers from the National Institute of Design, agricultural experts, conducted health camps and sports like football. The idea was to facilitate participation by local people in their own progress. We got people together to build their bridges and canals themselves, instead of always having to wait for the government to come in. Women got empowered and got confident enough to approach us for information about government schemes for them. If children were dying in a village in large numbers, I would get their blood tests done and it would turn out to be something like malaria. Terrorists would ask villagers not to interact with me but people would pay no heed.’ The campaign against witch-hunting thus spread to around hundred villages, led by the first village which had once been the perpetrator of the crime.

Gaps to be Mended

NEN isn't quick to buy Saikia's claim. If the project was so successful, why was it not continued?asks NEN's Anurita Pathak. Why didn't they raise funds, integrate anti-witch-hunting lessons in education and health in regional langauges?

Chitralekha Barua of the same organisation underlines the media's role in encouraging regressive attitudes to women: TV serials still keep women within the confines of their homes. Local channels would advertise which babas or priests you can go to if you are tamed by dakinis.’

NEN has been vociferous in demanding an anti-witch hunt legislation for the state but the bill has still not got the final approval. There are also other concerns around the present bill like a lack of nuanced understanding of the terms witchcraft and witchhunt, bez and ojha (both loosely used as terms for those who identify a certain person as a witch), and the differences between Assamese and Bodo languages. Activists worry that it does not focus enough on prevention. Professor Upen Rabha Hakasam of the department of folklore, Gauhati University, has personally faced the menace of witch-hunting as his own cousin, married in a well to do, highly educated household, had fallen prey to it. He says, The British had been able to abolish the abhorrent practice of Sati by law. Why can't our government use the law to abolish witch-hunting?

The Silver Lining

Outside of the law there have been attempts by artists to focus on the implications of witch-hunting, while activists use art to bolster their campaign. AMSS has travelled twenty villages with its play, along with putting up 200 awareness camps. There are films like Aei MaatiteWitch-Hunt Diaries and Jangfai Jonak on the subject. 

Working for years now on ground zero, through village level branches called sanghas, AMSS members say that there has been a decrease in the number of murders because of witch-hunting, though many cases of ostracisation and assault are still there. The survivors who would previously hesitate to report cases are much more confident now. They talk of instances when the police demanded affidavits from women saying they would not withdraw their complaints. Some survivors also end up joining the organisation. Women have started demanding property rights. AMSS members visit the homes of women employed as labour, as carpenters and stone cutters, and get them registered so they have economic stability and are not completely vulnerable or dependent. AMSS adds that the power wielded by ojhas has weakened, and people have started going more to doctors; health centres in villages have helped.

AMSS itself has faced assault by villagers, who feared that the organisation would report them to the police. They called the women working with AMSS witches and their leaders like Mamoni and Birubala head witches. But the organisation did not take legal action against them because they wanted people to realise what they were doing was wrong, which they ultimately did and apologised.

Going beyond Black-and-White

In trying to understand witch-hunting, if we look at each case carefully, there seem to be some immediate causes like deep-set prejudices against women, poor health, education and economic status, inter- and intra-familial rivalries, ignorance and superstition. But a superior, patronising approach of relegating these features only to certain sections of society, marginalised in terms of gender, social or economic status, won't help. There are enough incidents to show that the practice also goes on in families with ample money and education. Something like non-conformism by women is punished across classes. In villages, women whose spouses treat them well, as equal partners, have been called witches. In cities, if a woman is loved and respected by her partner, she is asked what magic she had to resort to in order to keep the man in her control.

Similarly, rather than assuming that witch-hunting takes place in certain societies because they are backward and uneducated would be taking a myopic view of things. In his paper 'Assam’s Tale of Witch-hunting and Indigeneity', Debarshi Prasad Nath makes some important larger connections, like linking witch-hunting to an aggressive, revivalist effort to establish cultural identities in a state where identity conflicts over resources are a common feature. Nath talks of how Bodo history doesn't have records of witch-hunts. He relates the frequency of witch-hunting in Bodo communities to a possible attempt by Bodo people to integrate themselves with an ancient part of Assamese history. Nath's paper points to the possibility of witch-hunting being a skewed way in which some members of the community try to resist a homogenisation imposed by majoritarian groups. The infamous witch-hunting incident that took place in Majuli in Assam comes to mind where for three days in 2013 even the police could/did not enter the area to intervene.

Then there is the case of the ex-principal of Udalguri College, Prafulla Kumar Basumatary. His wife was named as a witch by Basumatary's niece. The niece had been pursuing her MBA in Mumbai and had come to her village in Assam at that time. Her aunt, the accused, says there were two reasons for this targeting: jealousy around the fact that Basumatary's own children were doing very well in cities in terms of education and work, and because the said niece was in love with someone her own family was not allowing her to marry, and she found this an easy way to vent her frustration. So, here, along with familial rivalry and socioeconomic insecurities, for the niece there was the pressured and uncomfortable coexistence of an aspirational city life along with the traditional expectations of her family.

Blamed by their own relatives, the Basumatary family had to rebuild their home elsewhere
Along with a nuanced understanding of the triggers to witch-hunting while working with perpetrators, there also needs to be a patient unearthing of unsaid narratives of the survivors. NEN's Anurita Pathak points out that in many cases the victims can hope to get some kind of justice only after they are dead. But witch-hunting is not just an isolated incident. It is often a protracted process that can also include sexual violence, stalking, disrobing, molestation, acid attacks and public humiliation, rejecting sexual advances being one of the causes. Due to stigma and resignation to the fact that the survivors have to continue to live amongst their attackers, many of these stories never come to the fore, leading to not just a denial of justice but also a never-articulated demand for it.

First published in Eclectic NorthEast, January 2017. Subsequently published in India Resists, 3 Mar 2017. Photos by Jadeed Hussain and Nasreen Habib.


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